Friday, September 30, 2011

Ask Tony: What is a liturgical abuse?

Here and there, if you read enough blogs, you will see various writers grump and gripe about liturgical abuses. Not all of them are Catholics; Anglicans and Lutherans also have their conservatives who shudder at the sound of guitars, howl at the presence of “giant puppets of doom” and wail at the first hint of liturgical dancing.

(Although I grew up with the Gather Hymnal, and am guilty of having strummed a six-string as a young music minister, my hymn preferences are slowly growing more traditional. Especially when I find myself at the afternoon Life Teen Mass; our parish’s combo is really good, much better than your average garage band, but ….)

If you come from an Evangelical or fundamentalist free-church background, you may have trouble “getting” the importance of proper liturgy for churches closer to the orthodox tradition. Especially since the Catholic Church embraces not just the Latin church, with over a dozen rites that with proper permissions can be used, but also twenty-two Eastern churches stemming from several different liturgical traditions, as well as the Anglican-use parishes (and the ordinariates now being erected under Anglicanorum coetibus).

So what’s the big deal if a particular parish wants to add or change something?

Umm, Father ... did you just drop some acid?
It may help you to understand if you think of a church — or the Church — not as a collection of individuals all believing the same things (more or less) and praying together at the same time and the same place, but as a single unit, the manifestation of the Body of Christ on earth, “a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope”.[1]

As such, the Mass is not an idiosyncratic event; it’s the unified prayer of the Body to God, the worship of God by the Body. It’s at one and the same time “the visible sign of the communion in Christ between God and men”,[2] “a participation in Christ’s own prayer addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit”,[3] and “the privileged place for catechizing the People of God”.[4]

To put it a different way, it’s not about you. It’s not about self-expression. It’s not about affirming your special goodness. It isn’t even about your particular community, the vibrant, inclusive kind of Christianity you practice at Our Lady of Great Tolerance.

No. Just. No.
This introduces a tension. On the one hand, God is fully deserving of the best you can offer, and there is much to be said for prayer and worship that comes straight from the heart. On the other, the Mass is not supposed to be “entertaining”, though when done properly and reverently it makes for great theater.

The mark of good liturgical practice is that it encourages contemplation and worship. The minute it becomes a matter of how cute little Joey Schmuckatelli looked in his raccoon costume (what?), or the horrible flat note Ron McGillicuddy blew on his cornet, or how beautiful Jane McGuffin danced (hanh?), you’ve undermined the purpose of the Mass.

And when you have a liturgical puppet “[mimicking] Father Jim Cassidy as he performs the Consecration” — that’s beyond wrong; that’s sacrilegious. Sorry, automatic fail. (Yes, this really happened, at St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis.)

But liturgy isn’t just the music and the rubrics of the Mass. As the Mass is also about catechesis, it’s also the words of the prayers. The prayers are meant not only to plead to God but also to instruct the people. Lex orandi, lex credendi: “what we pray is what we believe”.

The "Ladies Dance Committee" from The Music Man?
This is precisely why the English translation of the Roman Missal has been updated: the version it will replace on November 29th is considered by many to have “dumbed down” Catholic beliefs a little too much, sometimes leaving room for errors to be learned instead of authentic doctrine. Also, the more gender-inclusive language of the lame-duck translation diffuses and vitiates deeper levels of Old Testament Scripture, levels that refer back to Jesus as Messiah and Son of God.

Also, as I’ve written before on The Other Blog: “Not only are the new translations of these prayers [i.e., the propers of seasons] closer to the Latin of the Missale Romanum, they point out just how flat, insipid and darn near non-denominational the 1973 translation is.

Disco Mass? WTH?
But neither the old, stale, quasi-ecumenical translation nor its new-and-improved successor can do their job properly if the priest decides he wants to pray by the seat of his pants. The priest’s job is to smarten the people up, not dumb the prayers down. The priest’s job is to teach the Catholic faith — not what he wishes it were, not what the people would prefer, but what it is. Once again — Fr. O’Leary, Fr. McDonagh, Fr. Tegeder, are you paying attention? — it’s not about you.

What’s the best way for Father to do his job? Well, first of all he can learn to preach a better sermon. Beyond that, though, there’s a very simple formula, very easy to learn, and the ineffable Fr. John Zuhlsdorf has come up with it:

In other words, stick to the script![5]

The guidelines every church must follow when celebrating the Mass are found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). It includes darn near everything conceivable, from what kind of materials can be used for the chalice and paten to where the choir should sit. There are other references, such as Redemptoris sacramentum, an instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship on the Eucharistic celebration, and Musicam sacram, an instruction from the Second Vatican Council on liturgical music.

Chances are, if you’re not from a liturgically-oriented communion, you’ll find what goes on at a Catholic Mass distracting enough. That’s okay; after a few sessions, you get used to it. However, if the Mass ever begins to feel more like performance art than worship, if you ever feel like you walked into a bad rip-off of Cirque du Soleil or a pre-school play or a flash mob — run-don’t-walk to another Catholic church.

God deserves better than that.

[1] Tertullian, The Apology 39.
[3] Ibid., §1073.
[4] Ibid., §1074.
[5] In the missal, particularly the ritual editions used at the altar, the prayers are written in black ink while rubrics and other instructions are in red ink.